VINCENNES, Ind. – How do Vincennes University’s defending NJCAA Division I men’s basketball champions move forward into a new season?
According to ninth-year Vincennes University coach Todd Franklin, who welcomes a host of players back from a team that finished 36-2 and decked Ranger, Texas, 87-77 in the national title game in March, a key is to take pride in it, and carry on.
“We don’t talk about last year in terms of anything that has to do with this year,” said the 2018 NJCAA Men’s Basketball Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee. “We really don’t. We’ve gone about our preparation for the season just like we have every other year.”
A banner to celebrate the school’s fourth title — the others were in 1965, 1970 and 1972 — will be unveiled prior to the Kiwanis Classic game against Southwest Tennessee at 7 p.m. on Nov. 1 in the P.E. Complex.
The Trailblazers - ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA Division I preseason poll - will complete play in the Kiwanis Classic against No. 19 Harcum on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m.
VU is ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA Division I preseason poll and the Street and Smith preview magazine preseason poll.
Any hope the Trailblazers have of being the first to win back-to-back championships since Southeastern Community College (Iowa) in 2003 and 2004 rests with returning starters Kevin Osawe (Brampton, Ont., Canada), a 6-6 forward, and Craig Porter (Terre Haute, Ind.), a 6-1 guard.
“They’re key, key, key guys and they’re supposed to be two of the best players in the country,” stressed Franklin, who will be honored prior to the opener in recognition of his 600th career win, which came in the Trailblazers’ 72-60 victory over Odessa (Texas) in the quarterfinals of last year’s national finals. “If we’re going to be good, they need to be two of the best players in the country. That’s just the way it is.”
Osawe is quite a story as he overcame injuries to both feet on his way to being MVP at the NJCAA finals. He didn’t play for the Trailblazers last year until early January, on his way to averaging 11.5 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. He was at his best during the four-game national tournament, when he averaged 16.3 points and 9.1 rebounds a game.
“(Being MVP) speaks to what kind of potential he has,” Franklin said. “He never got to 100 percent last year, but as he went along he became huge for us.”
Porter started 27 games a year ago, and averaged 8.4 points, 6.5 rebounds and a team-leading 5.4 assists per game. This year, he’ll need to produce more than just numbers.
“I think Craig Porter is trying to lead,” said Franklin, who has a career record of 602-138 and is 272-41 in nine seasons guiding the Trailblazers. “I don’t know if that was in his nature before in life, but he’s trying.”
Two more returnees, 6-0 Chuka Mekkam (Portland, Ore.) and 6-2 Colton Sandage (Bloomington, Ill.) will play primary roles.
Sandage played in 35 games as a freshman and averaged 8.6 points a game.
“He’s the kind of guy who’ll dive on the floor, take a charge, fly around,” Franklin said. “He played a huge role for us (last season) from moment one to the end.”
Mekkam played in a reserve role, and saw action in 33 games while averaging 2.4 points and 3.0 assists. He’ll back up Porter at point guard, although there will be times when the two are on the floor together.
“Unless something is unusual, he’ll play starter minutes, whether he starts or not,” Franklin said.
Also returnees, 6-9 sophomore Kevin Kone (Osny France) and 6-7 sophomore Chinedu Okanu (Gary, Ind.) will split time in the post. Kone played in 25 games last season, averaging 4.5 points and 2.4 rebounds an outing. Okanu played in 22 games, and averaged 2.5 points and 1.6 rebounds.
“We’ll basically try to get those two to combine and handle the five spot. We think they can,” Franklin said. “The two of them together, I think, can put together 40 good minutes.”
Randy Tucker (Rock Island, Ill.), a 6-4 guard, is a redshirt freshman. Although he did not play last season, he was involved, which makes a big difference. It’s possible he’ll be in the starting lineup at the outset of the season.
“He looks like one of those guys who’ll be in the rotation,” Franklin said. “I know he’ll be ready to go.”
Two others who’ll fight for a spot in Franklin’s eight-man rotation are 6-5 freshman Christian Wells (Muncie, Ind.), the son of former NBA first-round draft pick Bonzi Wells, and 6-6 freshman John Ukomadu (Detroit, Mich.)
Franklin thinks help could come from Michael Rogers (Evansville, Ind.), a 6-4 sophomore who played in 16 games a year ago and averaged 2.4 points per game.
“He’s found and battled and we trust his effort,” Franklin said. “We trust him to be in the right place and do the right things. He’s a glue-type of player.”
Lukanda Teziggwa (Woodend, Victoria, Australia), who played in 17 games last season, is the only other returnee to the roster.
Other newcomers are 5-11 freshman Cameron Traylor (Culloden, Georgia), 6-1 freshman Antonio Watson II (Westerville, Ohio), 6-5 freshman Milo Sigmund-Gordon (Canterbury, England) and 6-7 freshman Matija Ilic (Belgrade, Serbia), a transfer from Idaho State.
While insisting that what the Trailblazers did a year ago will “live forever” and the championship banner will hang from the roof of the P.E. Complex will be an eternal reminder, Franklin says that this year’s group has its own story to write.
“This year is a different entity,” he said. “It’s its own deal, its own thing. We’ve never treated it otherwise. We’re back to the business of trying to put together a basketball team that can be competitive, with a chance to be one of the better teams in the country, and a chance at the end of the year to demonstrate that to the world. Just like always.”
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2019-20 Vincennes University Men’s Basketball Schedule
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